What’s death got to do with it?
There is a newsroom truism in the USA that “one dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans”. Sounds pretty bad. But the reality is much much worse. For a start, from the perspective of the news media in the West, 500 Africans have nowhere near that kind of value. The death toll from conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is literally one thousand times greater than that in Israel-Palestine, yet it is the latter that is the object of far greater media coverage, if that is any indication of the news value of the two conflicts. The numbers of victims from conflict in Israel-Palestine are counted down to the last digit, and the intricacies and nuances of the conflict, political situation and peace process are almost obsessively analysed and presented. Death tolls from most African conflicts (if anyone bothers to count) are usually rounded off to the nearest one hundred thousand (at times the nearest million), and the conflicts are frequently brushed off and dismissed as being chaotic, or worthy of some vague pity or humanitarian concern, but rarely of any in-depth political analysis.
But news editors do not line up conflict death tolls and do division and multiplication to adjust the figures according to the region and skin colour of the victims when deciding which conflicts to cover and which to ignore. The reality is that the scale of a conflict has very little at all to do with whether a conflict gets the attention of the media or not. Other factors (like the political interest of key policymakers at home, skin colour, simplicity and sensationalism) appear to be the key determinants. Once a conflict is ‘chosen’, it becomes the centre of attention, at the expense of all other conflicts – however destructive they may be.
A conflict that had caused 2,000 deaths by late 1998 in Kosovo, for example, became seen as a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportions that simply could not be ignored. Doing something about it was widely accepted as a moral responsibility – a pure case of ‘humanitarianism’. And yet at the same time, millions of human lives were being lost in Africa – the multinational invasion of the DRC was in full swing, brutal rebellions were wreaking havoc in Angola and Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia and Eritrea were engaged in heavy fighting over their border. Each of these conflicts alone was far worse than that in Kosovo. But humanitarian principles simply did not appear to apply to these humans.
This does not mean that conflict in Africa is ignored across the board. But even within Africa, the death toll has little to do with the levels of coverage. Darfur made a rare appearance on the radar of Western concern in 2004, rising to a relatively high position on the media agenda. This happened at a time when the known death toll from conflict there was still 80 times smaller than that in the DRC. Similarly, political violence in early 2007 in Zimbabwe resulting in one death and a number of arrests and beatings of political leaders became the object of relatively high levels of attention and indignation in the Western media. At almost exactly the same time, political protest in Guinea was put down by government forces that fired indiscriminately into crowds of protesters resulting in a total of 130 deaths and numerous arrests. Also at the same time, street battles between government and opposition forces in the capital of the DRC resulted in between 400 and 600 deaths, and resulted in the exile of the opposition leader. Yet this violence in Guinea and the DRC was virtually ignored by the Western media.
Could Zimbabwe’s ‘popularity’ (as the representative African bad guy) have something to do with Mugabe being a thorn in the side of powerful Western governments because of his railings (in fluent English mind you) against them? And could Guinea’s absence from the media radar have something to do with the fact that the government there is Western-friendly, and that Guinea is the world’s largest producer of bauxite (much of which is mined by Western multinational corporations)?
But why should supposedly ‘free’ media in powerful Western countries align themselves and their news values so closely with the governments of the countries in which they are based? Were they not supposed to be the watchdogs of the policymakers? Stay tuned…